Edna Adan

Former First Lady returns to her midwife roots

Edna Adan was raised in Somaliland in an educated and wealthy family, and went on to a distinguished international career with the World Health Organization. But after retiring, Adan returned to her roots and opened Somaliland’s first maternal health facility.

Edna Adan was raised in Somaliland in an educated and wealthy family, when Somaliland was a protectorate of the British Empire. Her mother was the daughter of the postmaster-general, and her father was a doctor who became a leader in medical care in the country.

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Edna Adan, founder of the Edna Adan Maternity Hosptial, in Somaliland

Photo by Joshua Bennett

At the time there were no school for girls, but Adan was permitted to hover in the back of her brothers' lessons at home. She excelled in her studies and her parents sent her to a primary school for girls in the nearby French colony of Djibouti. There was no high school for girls, though, so she returned home and found work as an interpreter for a British doctor, which both improved her English and kindled her interest in health work.

A girls' school opened in Somaliland when Adan was 15 years old and she went to work there as a student teacher. She would also receive private lessons from the teacher in the afternoons and was permitted to sit for exams, though in a room separate from the boys. Adan was the first Somali girl awarded one of a few coveted scholarships to study in Britain and she studied nursing, midwifery, and hospital management there for seven years.

When she returned home to Somaliland, Adan became the first qualified nurse-midwife in the country and the first Somali woman to drive a car. She later became the First Lady when she married Somaliland's Prime Minister, Ibrahim Egal. After they divorced, Adan was recruited to join the World Health Organization, where she held various key positions advocating for the abolition of harmful traditional practices, such as female genital cutting.

But Adan never let go of a lifelong dream to build a hospital – "the hospital my dad would have wanted to work in." After retiring from WHO she sold all of her possessions and returned to Somaliland, where she used her life savings to turn this dream into a reality.

With the assistance from the Friends of Edna's Hospital and in-kind donations from local merchants, Adan finished construction on the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital in 2002 on the site of a former garbage dump. Adan continues to work as the hospital's director, living at the facility.

Read Nicholas Kristof's New York Times column about Edna.

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